Thursday, 26 October 2017

A year of living in London


I remember sitting down to write my first blog the day I moved here. It was catharsis, a way of coping with the enormity of my life situation and an unknown future. I sit here a year (well, 14 months) later, having not written my blog in nearly as long, and a somewhat seasoned veteran of the city I call home. It seems strange reading back how foreign London was to me. It started as this impenetrable metropolis, where only the rich, career-driven or starving artists could live with not much room for the rest of us normal folks. I wasn't here to work in finance or chase some music dream, my dream was only to experience the day-to-day of a city I've loved since I first visited as a little girl.

I eventually stopped writing my blog, because that real life I was searching for took over and there was no need to try to make sense of it anymore. But I think it's time to revisit it and so I've compiled a list of a few things I have learned about London, life and myself over the past year (be warned, this list will be a mix of trivial observations and some deeper feelings).

London life
  • Everyone gets a 'tube face'. You will try to fight it but eventually you will succumb. It is inevitable. Sorry.

  • The best coffee in the UK is here and right on my doorstep. Costa? Starbucks? Ugh, no thanks. Why have that rubbish when I can get Monmouth, Caravan, Prufrock, and Black Sheep? Non-Londoners will call it smug London superiority, but we all know it's the truth. 

  • The North/South divide is a real thing and it suddenly matters. When I first moved here I was determined to travel all over. After all, it's one city right? Yeah...not so much. Now you can often hear my shocked exclamation of, “I have to go SOUTH of the river?!” Heck, going past the West End is an issue in itself. My life is mostly a nice little square of Islington-Farringdon-Kings Cross-Dalston.

  • You will quickly learn to avoid Central on a Saturday. It's just not worth your sanity.

  • Everyone told me London is expensive. I already knew London was going to be expensive before I moved. It's true, London is expensive. It doesn't make it not worth it or make me want to move somewhere cheaper though. I have also rapidly got used to the price of rent and food so that when I do go home, I exclaim how cheap everything is. I've become one of 'those' people.  

  • Deliveroo will become a way of life. And you may even on one occasion use Uber Eats to get McDonalds delivered. You will feel ashamed, but also defiant.

Personal life

  • Although I'm used to living here and it's often very routine and mundane, I sometimes still find myself getting wide-eyed country girl look when I walk by the Thames and see the world-famous views. It truly is a stunning city.

  • My extroverted side has been unleashed a lot more since I moved here. I always considered myself an introvert, although now I think maybe it's pretty even. An ambivert, if you will. I often find myself getting energised by parties rather than tired. 

  • Because I knew very few people when I came here, I had to push myself into social situations where I didn't know anyone and basically force myself to talk to strangers. This helped my confidence tremendously, but I also remember how exhausting it was. It's still something I'm not hugely comfortable with, but I'm better at it than I was (or perhaps better at faking it).

  • London has a million fun, exciting things to do and it's tempting to try all of them. I'm having to learn when to say yes and when to say no – it's still a struggle. I often find myself getting sad when I don't have any weekend plans although I know I need that time to refuel, especially after a busy week.

  • I often find myself morphing into one of those 'London is where life is' people, as if such life doesn't or can't exist outside the city. I hate that I do it and I don't mean to but it's quite easy to get swept up in it all. 

  • Loving where you live is so important. You will spend more time there than anticipated and if you hate it, life will be difficult. I'm pretty lucky that I love Highbury. It's got loads of pubs, restaurants, great transport links and is in walking distance of three (three!) beautiful parks. Oh yeah, parks are VERY important when you have no garden. 

  • I am so grateful for all the wonderful friends I have made. People I didn't even know a year ago are now so dear to me I can't imagine not having them in my life.


The serious stuff

  • For a city of 8 million people, London can be be very isolating. I remember the feelings of loneliness I had in the first few months after my move and how difficult it was to overcome the thinking that it might never change. I was meeting lots of people but didn't really know them and there was no quick fix for that. I just had to ride it out, trust God and understand that this too would pass. It has, a long time ago in case you're wondering. 

  • Having a community around you is essential. Getting plugged into a church was one of the major factors that helped me feel settled, more than a job or a long term housing situation. It wasn't like I had an instant group of friends - friendships take time to cultivate - but it was a place of like-minded people my age that had the potential for something more. And I luckily stumbled upon a church (KXC) that I can call home and that has given me that sense of community. I have a strong dislike of cliques and I want to make sure that no one I come across ever feels that they are unwelcome or unwanted. I want everyone who comes through the doors to feel that sense of community and welcome that I felt when I first went there. 

  • I've spent a year enjoying all London has to offer, but I don't want to just consume, I want to give back. I want there to be a reason I'm in London. I love having fun but I don't want that to be the only thing that I take away. I want to make a difference in this beautiful, broken city. 

  • It's very easy to fall into the trap of comparison, especially in such a frenetic and competitive city. I admit to measuring myself against others when it comes to careers, finance, looks, hobbies and social life and coming up short. It's something I've been wrestling with a lot over this year and something I'm actively trying to avoid, but I can't confess to having the all answers. I suspect that it's not just me that feels this way, though, and that it's a symptom of a society obsessed with appearances, where status is everything. 

  • I've recently been trying to decipher the difference between happiness and contentment. Is happiness a state of being or is it transient? I've been asked time and again whether I'm happy, whether moving to London was all I thought it would be. I guess the answer to that is yes, and no. Life has its ups and downs, like all lives do, and some days I'm on top of the world and beaming from ear to ear, loving life and everyone in it. And some days, the tube is crowded and work has sucked and I have an achy back from my terrible mattress and life isn't all shiny. But when I stop to think about it - and really take stock of my life - I may not always be happy in the emotional sense, but I'm satisfied. I am content. 

Looking back on my past blogs, it all seems so silly that I was afraid that it might not work out. Of course God had it under control, of course He was there all along. But in a way, my future is still unknown and uncertain. Sure, I'm living here - but now what? I guess I'll have to find out along the way and then look back at this blog post with an AHA moment in a year's time. All I know is, for the foreseeable future, I'm right where I want to be.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

When country met city



I’m a fan of music. Not in the ‘put on your oversized headphones and listen to that rare Pink Floyd vinyl’ sort of way, more like ‘I listen to Spotify a lot and go to a gig now and again’. A duo I’m a fan of, The Shires, were having an album launch at HMV Oxford Street and tickets were limited and free. I’d been wanting to see them live for a while, after hearing them on Radio 2, so I quickly booked my ticket. They're English but play American country music. However, they're not your average yee-haw, I've got my truck, my gun and my ol' blue jeans country; they sing in beautiful harmonies, more similar to The Civil Wars than the Florida Georgia Line.

The doors didn't open until six and I got there an hour early as it was so near work. A few people were milling by the door, but I figured there wouldn't be that many people coming to see them, so I spent some time browsing Oxford Street instead of standing around for an hour. By the time I decided to queue up, around half an hour to forty-five minutes later, the line snaked around the building! I've learned that there's nothing more fascinating to people than a long queue. Those of us waiting were gawked at and a number of people even came up to ask us what we were queuing for. When we replied 'The Shires' a look of confusion crossed their faces and they shrugged, no doubt disappointed that it wasn't someone they'd heard of, like Justin Bieber.

Apparently the Shires rolled up in a massive truck but because I was around the corner I unfortunately did not get to see the spectacle. The doors didn't open until at least quarter past and we all dutifully shuffled in and up to the top floor of HMV where there is an intimate venue space. We again waited (there was a lot of waiting during the evening but I didn't mind - it was free!) until at last the Shires came onstage. The Shires consist of Chrissy Rhodes (singer) and Ben Earle (singer, guitar and piano), both attractive, hugely talented and very down-to-earth. Their set was acoustic, playing around six songs, four from their new album, one from their last album and a lovely cover of Robbie Williams' Angels. Their voices were amazing, blending together in stunning, effortless harmonies and with very few vocal cracks or off notes.  The crowd swayed toward the older demographic but the participation was lacking. Most of them just stood and stared, even when the Shires desperately tried to get them to clap and shout out the words.  I, for one, shrugged off my inhibitions and got into it, bobbing to the music with uncool jerky movements, clapping my hands above my head when they called for it, singing along and having a grand old time.





After the set we all got in line for the signing. I somehow ended up at the back of the queue - again - so it took me nearly another hour to get to them. The security guard fancied himself a comedian and would go up and down the line chatting and regaling us with his 'jokes'. By the time I neared them, we were told that we'd only have time for a quick photo and hi and bye. We were all a little disgruntled by this news, as we hadn't waited so long for a 30 second impersonal meet and greet. Chrissy and Ben, bless them, did not adhere to this at all even though they must have been exhausted. They spent time with every single person, chatting with them, signing their cds (someone even brought a guitar to sign) and posing for multiple photos.




I wasn't at all nervous while waiting in line. I like their music but I'm not a super fan girl and they are not mega famous, so I was rather laid back about the whole thing. I even rehearsed a few droll lines that would make them think I was witty and cool. And then it was my turn.

Reader, I babbled.

I went in for the hug rather than the handshake - because why not - and then my mouth ran away with me. I went on and on and on about how similar they were to the Civil Wars, and did they like the Civil Wars and wasn't it a shame they split up? Etc etc etc. It makes me cringe just thinking about it. To their credit they took it in their stride, probably used to crazy people, and engaged me in conversation and obligingly posed for the photo with the 'arms around me' shot. I mean, who wants the awkward lean shot?



I think I'm now even more of a fan of them than I was before. Their albums don't do them justice - they are a band that shine when they play live. It's sad in this day and age that it's novel to see a band that sound exactly like they do on their cd (rather than the standard weak voice being drowned out by an overpowering backing track) and The Shires are undeniably talented. While country is not everyone's cup of tea I think the Shires are a good gateway band, definitely more folky than twangy country and chilled out enough to be a soundtrack for a dinner party. Although my evening consisted of A LOT of waiting, it was all worth it to see such a great band in an audience of only 250. Having recently been signed by the same record label as Taylor Swift in the USA, who knows if I'll ever get such a chance again? 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Stepping into a story book


I went home, once again, this past weekend to attend a hen party. Luckily, I managed to get a couple of days off work so I got a chance to see some friends and have some time to actually go out for a day in my fine home county. After the intensity of the city, I needed some country prettiness so on Friday morning my Mum and I headed for the Cotswolds.

The Cotswolds is full of precious little towns and villages, most consisting of light stone houses and tiny, overpriced fudge shops. The biggest and most popular are probably Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold (they like hyphens in the Cotswolds) and Chipping Campden. Much like London they are, however, overflowing with tourists. I wanted somewhere a little more low-key that still kept that Cotswold charm. Mum had heard that Lower Slaughter (yes, that is its name, there is also an Upper Slaughter) was home to a good tearoom so off we drove, merrily singing along to James Taylor.



Lower Slaughter is as darling as expected – more, perhaps. It is a chocolate box village to be sure, but not so sickeningly quaint that I felt the need to scrub the twee off myself. A stream runs through the heart of the village and is crossed by a couple of stone bridges. I half expected some extremely small trolls to be waiting under them. The cottages alongside the stream are perfect. I mean it, log piles neatly stacked, windows and doors all painted the same uniform shade of blue or green, gates without a scrap of rust on them. Mum and I agreed that there must be a rigorous neighbourhood upkeep programme to keep it looking so picturesque, so while living there looks like it might be wonderful, it would be more hassle than it’s worth.




There’s not much in the village, just a church, a town hall and an old mill which houses a tiny museum, a leather shop and the tearoom. The mill reminded me of the one from Beauty and the beast – from any fairy tale, really, where the plucky miller’s daughter goes on an adventure and ends up marrying the prince. There is a craft shop in an outbuilding which sells all sorts of vintage and old-world odds and ends. You have to go through the narrow shop to get to the tearoom, which is in a small converted barn. It has been decorated nicely and appropriately for the space – spotted plates and cups in the same sable green as the tables and even as the houses outside. The cafĂ© does the usual fair, sandwiches, soup, cakes, coffee etc. I had a jacket potato with beans and cheese, an underrated yet entirely delicious autumnal lunch, especially as it was quite cold outside. 




We sat upstairs at a narrow table which was a little cramped with all our plates and cutlery. It got even more cramped when more and more people started to arrive and decided that sitting upstairs was also a good thing to do. Fortunately, we were finished by that point so we wrapped up, dodged the child waiters (ok, maybe not but there were very young!) and went outside. Some crazy people were eating outside and while it was a beautiful setting, I’m not willing to sacrifice my extremities to gaze at a river while I eat.





Lower Slaughter is a bit like a film set. The only people around the streets seemed to be people like us who were visiting. Perhaps it was just the time of day but it seemed to me that there was no sort of village life. No dog walkers, no old men sitting on a bench and taking in the world, no screaming kids. It seemed to me a beautiful, empty village, one that you visit but no one actually lives in. I mean, people must live there but there was no evidence. It was, in some ways, a stepford village. That isn’t a criticism. It is adorable, it is brimming with cuteness and charm. I want to go there at Christmas and sip mulled wine as snowflakes flutter against my cheeks. I want to sit by the river in the summer and read Brideshead Revisited. I want to make apple crumble in my cosy cottage kitchen as I watch children play outside in the fallen autumn leaves. It makes me want an idyllic life, goshdarnit.

I’m just not sure the life the village promises actually exists.




Friday, 30 September 2016

Spotlight on: Fortnum & Mason


When I'm not cautiously deciding whether or not I'm too broke to afford a Pret wrap, I like to pretend I'm a fabulously wealthy socialite who lives in Mayfair and has a butler named Whatley. As in, "Get the car, Whatley, we're going to Harrods. I'm in desperate need of a new Birkin bag." Anyway, one of the places where I like to live in my imagination is the upscale department store of Fortnum and Mason. Generally known for its food halls, it is a grand shop with some of the most beautiful displays I've ever seen.

It was still summer when I went and the sweeping staircase in the middle of the ground floor was decorated like something out of a fairy tale. I wanted to descend those stairs in a giant princess ballgown and waltz with Prince Charming.


Founded in 1707 as a grocery store and situated along Piccadilly, Fortnum & Mason certainly have cornered the market for fancy and overpriced food but somehow, even though you laugh at the prices, you somehow still want it all. Or at least I do. I wanted the delicate chocolates and the little pots of honey in their honey mansion. I wanted the splendidly English hampers and especially the tea, for which the shop is famous. I wanted to laden Whatley's arms with shopping bags and have him drive home and unpack while I take afternoon tea with Lady Pendlington-Smyth.


I felt a little like an impostor while I perused, like the shop assistants just knew I wasn't going to buy anything. Not everything was terrifically expensive, I must admit, but enough was specialist and artisanal to make it obvious I was just there for a nosy. I noticed there was a sign for the crypt downstairs and, my interest piqued, I wandered around the wine section in the basement like a lost sheep until I found it.

Situated in what is probably one of the oldest sections of the store, it has been arranged to look like a Vampire Count's dining room. You can almost see Dracula swishing his goblet of wine and saying, "I vant to suck your blooood." Of course there are ghost tales about the crypt to add to the store's mythology. You can actually hire it out for private functions, which is pretty cool. I bet it would make a terrific party location. In fact, I think fancy socialite me may hire it out for Halloween. I'll get Whatley to pick up the decorations at once.


Friday, 23 September 2016

Taste the rainbow

I have always wanted to make a grand cake, in the show stopping Great British Bake Off style. And my Dad’s 70th birthday last weekend seemed like the perfect occasion to give it a go. The thing is, while I’m a tolerable baker I’m not particularly artsy (toddler drawing stick men comes to mind) and therefore not very good at decorating. I’ve tried before, oh, how I have tried. Every time I try I think – this is it, this is the cake where I suddenly ‘get it’. It’s never the cake. I once saw a teapot cake online and thought ‘I could make that’. Easy, right? Big mistake. Not only did I have none of the correct tins, I also had very little experience in making a cake in any shape other that the pre-designed round ones. It ended up a normal round shape with extra pieces of cake sticking out at all angles and held on with cocktail sticks. Oh yes, and with bright blue icing with crumbs sticking on it to add to your mental picture. Luckily, the one photo taken with my grainy phone camera (this was pre-iphone) has been lost to the history books. It tasted good, though.

So when I saw pictures of rainbow cakes on Pinterest, I had to reign myself in. Hold up Becky, I told myself sternly, you know how this usually ends. But the idea persisted and I found a recipe online that looked manageable and was step-by-step (this one here). Instead of making do with what I had, I very carefully read which tools I needed and specially ordered them in. I got a Sugarflair rainbow icing kit, which are highly concentrated gel pastes, from Ebay for about £12. Pricey, but a little goes a long way and I’ll definitely get price per use out of them. I also bought a cake leveller from Dunelm and an offset spatula for the icing.

I got to Mum and Dad’s on Thursday and set about to making the sponge that evening. The sponge was relatively simple to make and I had use of my Mum’s ancient but still amazing Kenwood mixer. I blasted Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift is the ultimate baking music. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself and then you’ll see!) and danced and sang about as I cracked eggs and mixed sugar. I divided the mixture as evenly as possibly into six bowls and used about 1/6-of a teaspoon - or the very end of the handle – to add my colouring gel. The gel needs quite a bit of vigorous stirring to fully integrate the colour but once it’s done it looks very effective. The gel also goes everywhere, all over my hands and the spoon, so I had to wash my hands and the spoon after each go to make sure it didn’t stain or cross-contaminate the colours.  



I originally was going to bake in a bigger tin so the cake was wider rather than taller but there wasn’t enough of each mixture for that. In fact, there was barely enough mixture for my very smallest tin. It only covered just covered the tin and was no more a centimetre high. I baked them two at a time, for around 12 minutes each. Because the mixture was so thin, it didn’t need much longer or it would have burned. I only had two tins to I had to turn them out quickly, fan them to cool and then line the tins again before adding the next colours. It was a bit of a hassle, but who has six tins the same?

The cakes turned out just a little uneven though generally not too bad, but looked rather flat. This was a good thing, I realised, because if they had risen like a normal sponge the cake would be far too high and topple over! The recipe deliberately made the sponges dense so they would layer more easily. Once they were cool, I wrapped them in cling film and popped them in the freezer. There they lay in their frosty prison until Friday evening when I transferred them to the fridge to thaw.

On Saturday, the real work began.

I was a bit afraid that if I used the cake leveller that I’d break the sponge so I got my more experienced older sister to do it instead. I made a simple buttercream icing and layered the first three levels (purple, blue and green). I then put that bit in the fridge to chill and harden for around 30 minutes. I then did the same for the next three layers and the top. I also did a crumb coat, which is a thin base layer on all sides of the cake that is meant to sweep up all the crumbs and make the cake smooth for the real icing. Like a base coat for a wall or your nails.


The now rather high cake went into the fridge for an hour. Before you think how simple and lovely this all sounds, let me stop you right there. There was yelling. There was sniping. There was accidentally putting the layers on in the wrong order and then having to peel, re-ice and try again. All the while a million other things going on in the kitchen in preparation for that evening’s barbecue. It was not a relaxing process.

Because I can’t seem to ever make life simple for myself I decided not to cover the cake in buttercream but instead with Swiss meringue icing. Had I ever made it before? No. Did I decide this very stressful day was the perfect time to try it out? Yes, because I’m an idiot.  

One baking blog calls the Swiss meringue the fool proof meringue. Lies! If it’s not fool proof it’s definitely Becky proof. The process involves whisking egg whites and granulated sugar over simmering water (making sure the bowl is metal not glass and that it doesn’t touch the water) until it reaches around 60 degrees Celsius. I didn’t have a food thermometer so I had to use the method where you rub your fingers together in the mixture and if you don’t feel grain, then take it off the heat. By my account it should have been done so I took it off the heat and kept whisking until it formed peaks. Easy peasy, right? Or so I thought. As soon as I put the meringue on the cake it began running down the sides, not keeping the nice stiff texture like the recipe assure me it would. I whisked some more but the same happened. I started to freak out – it looked terrible. My sister told me to add some icing sugar which I did but it made the icing sweeter than intended! I mean, it tasted very good but what good is taste when it’s not staying on the cake? I kept adding more sugar until the icing vaguely held its shape and then I shoved it into the fridge, hoping desperately it would not run.

  
It did set, luckily, but the icing wasn’t smooth and beautiful like I’d hoped. In vain, I used some jagged edged smoothers to give it a bit more oomph but it didn’t work. Defeated, I threw on some confetti sprinkles and hoped that at least it would taste ok. When it was time to put out the desserts at the barbecue I was a little nervous but also quite proud of my tower cake. I cut a slice out of it to show the colours and – woomph. There it was, not quite a show stopper but fairly impressive. The inside, while it wasn’t perfect, did look rather striking. I nudged it to the front so everyone would get the full effect.


People told me it tasted good. I don’t know if they were just being nice, though. I think it tasted quite nice but because of the buttercream and outer icing, and because one slice was so big it was so very sweet. Like, I can't eat any more or I might be sick sweet. Next time I'll make a less sweet icing, I think. Or maybe just a smaller cake! 



Monday, 12 September 2016

They call it Stokey


I'm still on the hunt for neighbourhoods in London where I might eventually settle. I'd heard good things about Stoke Newington, so I decided to check it out after church. It's known as a place for young, cool parents which worried me a bit as I am neither a) cool or b) a parent. I am young(ish), however, so one out of three isn't bad I suppose. Stoke Newington - or Stokey as the locals call it - is in the borough of Hackney on the overground and is definitely cool.

The first thing that struck me about it was the variety of places to eat. From independent coffee shops to brunch spots to rustic pizza joints, it was a foodie's dream. It was a hot day and the majority of the cafes and restaurants had overspill seating on the street, so the whole area had a vibrant atmosphere. Church Street is the main hub of Stoke Newington and has a bit of Bohemian feel, full of little shops and markets. It was definitely a bit hipster - I saw many a hat and many a vintage bike - but not in an obnoxious, penny-farthing-riding kind of way.






One of the other main attractions is Clissold Park. It is big and beautiful and is especially great for kids, although I thoroughly enjoyed it too. It was originally a Georgian estate belonging to an abolitionist and the manor house is still standing, now housing a cafe. Just some of the amenities of the park are a paddling pool, skate park, animal enclosure (there are goats! One is called Dylan!), tennis courts and well-equipped play park. The New River runs through the park, which stank a bit but looks very pretty, as well as the Capital Ring walking path. 


The only thing that stopped Stoke Newington from being my absolute perfect place to live is the transport options. The overground around the entire area wasn't working which meant either getting the bus or walking half an hour down to Dalston Junction. I suppose the lack of tube means that it can stay relatively unspoiled and un-touristy. There are a lot of buses, so it not completely cut off.

Pretty, hipster and interesting? Stoke Newington, I've got my eye on you.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

I'll live in Hampstead if you let me


Hampstead is an area I've heard about time and time again for being one of the loveliest neighbourhoods in London. Those people are not wrong. It has a village feel and would be simply wonderful to live in. It's full of  little shops, markets, cute side streets and is located right next to the Heath. There's only one catch: you pretty much have to be a millionaire to afford it.



I walked from Finchley Road station, which is only about fifteen minutes away from me on the tube, so I got to see quite a lot of the area. I also stumbled into a charity shop which had a load of cool, vintage dresses that would be great for fancy dress! It took about twenty minutes to walk, uphill mostly, and went from huge redbrick Victorian houses to chocolate box Georgian places once I got to the village. I've heard Hampstead is a bit 'yummy mummy' and I did indeed see a lot of prams and leaflets for children's activities. There were very few of the usual high street shops to be found, instead there were artisan bakeries and expensive designer boutiques.


 Once I wandered off the beaten track, I found more pretty houses and even a tiny little village green Ok, it was a patch of grass forming a triangle between two streets with two benches, some trees and a red phone box, but it felt a bit like a green! The further I walked away from the village and toward the Heath, the bigger the houses got. I found some that were set back from the street with gates and driveways. I even found the Grand Budapest Hotel!


The only downside to Hampstead (apart from the price) is that it didn't feel very 'happening'. I couldn't see many bars or arty type venues. I can imagine it would be the perfect place to raise kids, or if you want to get away from it all but still stay close to the action. With three train stations (two tube and one overground) in close proximity to each other, it's a really, really fantastic area of London. Unfortunately, I'm never going to live there.